Can’t We All Just Share the Road?

Two recent road rage incidents are all over the news in Portland. Earlier this month, a drunken man on a bike became aggravated when a driver, himself a self-described bike advocate, reprimanded the cyclist for blowing a stoplight. The cyclist threatened the driver, picking up his bike and hitting the car with it. Then this week, a driver struck a cyclist and continued to drive as the victim, who escaped without serious injury, clung to the windshield.

The aggression on display is hard to fathom, but does it merit front page coverage? The breathless headlines pitting cyclists against drivers have led BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus to critique the local press for exacerbating the us-versus-them mentality.

There’s no excusing dangerous behavior on the road, no matter how you choose to get around, but the level of violence people are capable of when they’re driving is, by the nature of the vehicle, quite considerable. As one commenter on the Oregonian’s web site put it, "A drunk cyclist is clearly a menace, but a drunk driver can be downright deadly."

And then there’s this story (via Tom Vanderbilt) out of Seattle last Wednesday, when a man was killed for setting up orange cones while he gardened in a traffic circle near his house, showing that people don’t always have to be behind a wheel for their entitlement to the road to turn fatal.

Here’s a question for Vanderbilt, whose new book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), will be released later this month. What is it about automobiles or the road or human psychology that makes people behave like sociopaths at times?

  • I’ll take a wild guess — a frustrated desire for speed. To the motorist, anything that moves slower is an offense. That includes bikes (sometimes) and peds (always). It also includes other motorists who insist on observing the speed limit or drive slowly for other reasons.

    I was once briefly a newspaper reporter in NJ, covering town council meetings on the night side. One assignment took me to an area where there had been several fatalities on a notorious stretch of road — I read about it in the paper’s morgue before leaving for the meeting I had to cover. Driving over this road around sunset made me nervous — it was twisty and narrow and all the other drivers who knew it well wanted to go faster than me. I barely kept up with them.

    When I made my return trip, it was pitch black, and there was no street lighting or other lighting from houses which were set back far from the road. Nothing but my own headlights. So I went slow. Another car came up behind me and the driver, who clearly knew the road, became impatient and finally enraged. He passed me illegally on the right, taking my breath away, then got in front of me and slowed down to five miles an hour to show me how annoyed he was. I pulled off the road and waited for him to go away. People like this are literally deadly.

  • Mark Walker: I had a similar thing happen to me, but the passer-on-the-right slammed into an unseen brick mailbox, destroying his car. I didn’t stop laughing for hours.

    I wonder if Traffic addresses the idea, which I have noted anecdotally, that people in convertibles and on motorcycles behave more like humans and less like homicidal cretins.

  • skiddie

    Here in England, the media was all agog a couple of weeks ago when a cyclist who killed a pedestrian was given a £2,500 fine (she was apparently in the road, he shouted at her ‘move because I’m not going to stop– in other words, neither was blameless, though obviously as he was operating a vehicle, he should have stopped). The papers have been drumming up this problem about bikers and the fact that they’re unaccountable to the law. Scary stuff, right?

    They conveniently all ignored the fact that the same week, a semi-truck driver, who killed a cyclist by cutting her off (she was going straight, he turned into her) and grinding her against the fence that bordered the road was given a £275 fine.

    I think they just pay attention because stories with bikes involved are unusual, while motor vehicles kill people all the time– there’s nothing new about it.

  • Max Rockatansky
  • Max Rockatansky

    Pardon me if this is a triple post, seems like comments with links are getting blocked.

    Go slower! Check out the slow bike movement started by the Copenhagenize blog.

  • Oh boy. slowbike_troisfemmes.PNG is my new wallpaper, and my muse. Like Max said we can’t seem to link to things lately, but you’ll know it when you see it.

  • Max, do you mean The Slow Bicycle Movement? Let’s see if this link works.

  • Hm, but will this link work?

  • That worked, but I wasn’t really logged out, only “posting anonymously.” Let’s try this link.

  • One more time, this link.

  • Okay, sorry Max and Doc, I tried but I can’t figure out why you can’t post links.

  • Max Rockatansky

    Thanks for the efforts Angus! It seems to work off and on, in my case the comment won’t post if there’s a link so it may have something to do with a spam filter. Although it does work at times. But yes, that’s the site (#7)!

  • @ Max Rockatansky: How many links are you including in each comment? We limit the number of links per comment to help combat comment spam.

  • Max Rockatansky

    Hi – I just had one link in the comment, it’s happened before and seems kind of arbitrary. I figured it was a spam guard but wasn’t able to narrow down any consistent triggers that would block the comment. I’ll add a random link here and see if it works – http://oldtenspeedgallery.com/

  • Max Rockatansky

    ^^ So there’s no issues this time – figures!

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